The marathon starts at Jonas Ridge, NC (peak) and finishes at Brown Mountain Beach Resort (creek). Needless to say, it’s a downhill marathon, which sounds easy, right? Wrong! My legs were begging for even the slightest incline before the halfway mark.
Approximately 400 runners were shuttled to the start from the finish line and we all lined up just as the sun rose over the horizon. This made for an absolute beautiful backdrop as the light filtered through the red and yellow fall foliage. The first 6 miles were rolling hills along a paved ridge road. With a smaller field of runners compared to a typical large marathon, we soon found ourselves in tiny packs of three to five. Fine by me, as I enjoy the scenery, physical challenge and overall observing more than chatting with a fellow runner. I think those sentiments are heightened when the act of talking becomes laborsome with an elevated heart rate. Don’t write me off as a total grump against humanity though. I love the occasional, especially when witty, comment or cheer along the way.
Miles 7-15 were the toughest for me personally, even though they should have been a cakewalk on paper. The course changed from pavement to gravel and dramatically dropped in elevation. This is where I started cussing the race director under my breath. The day before and on the race website, runners were told the following, “not a trail in any sense of the word…there will be no large stones…may be some loose stones in some places.” Runners were also instructed they need not wear trail shoes. Totally incorrect! I’ve run on gravel roads before and also on many trails. The difference between not wearing trail shoes has to do with the size of the rocks. This was a gravel road covered with lots of loose rock. Maybe with smaller, pea-sized gravel trail shoes would not be needed, but with larger, loose gravel one would be much better off with trail shoes. Couple that with my favorite, but not the best for gravel, New Balance Minimus Shoes and I was feeling sharp pains in my feet from the rocks. The worse part was knowing my more rugged, Salomon Speedcross 3 Trail Running Shoes were sitting in the hotel room after being advised they were not needed. Speaking of hotel, avoid the “host hotel”, another misjudged recommendation from the website.
Ok, ok, back to the marathon and the good parts! Around mile 16 where the course levels off, the loose gravel becomes less frequent and the shooting pains subside. Besides the trashed feet, I’m feeling fresh and start to pass other runners who had previously flown by me on the downhill section. It’s a small, encouraging victory and I can start to visualized the finish line. Mile 20-22 was probably my fastest two miles. I’m not fully confident because I decided to run based on feel and forewent any kind of timing feedback during the race. No stopwatch, no GPS, no mile splits, just good ‘ol mind/body signals. Within those two miles, I ended up passing about 10 other runners. The adrenaline was pumping but I was also sympathetic with those reduced to walking. “Hitting the wall” is an experience one will never forget. For me it was the Des Moines Marathon, my first back in 2005.
The final 5K push to the finish started to play out. “Just hang on” I told myself and especially to the side ache creeping up. The biggest mistake one can do at the end of a marathon is to pick up the pace too much trying to shave off seconds, only to have a run-stopping side stitch add minutes to your finishing time. Experience makes it easier to gauge just how fast a finish should be, but even with multiple long distance races under my belt it’s still an unknown and one of the reasons I keep signing up for marathons. At the Peak to Creek Marathon it was a close call. The beginning of mile 25 was going well with me barely holding on during the last two tenths. I ended up finishing in a time of 3:26:28, not my best but far from my worst. Overall, not too shabby given my preparations and recent training. On to the next adventure!